Imperial Artefacts: History, Law and the Looting of Cultural Heritage

Imperial Artefacts: History, Law and the Looting of Cultural Heritage

Diana M. Natermann, Leiden University; Inge van Hulle, Tilburg University
Vom - Bis
28.01.2021 - 29.01.2021
Url der Konferenzwebsite
Diana Maria Natermann, Geschichte und International Relations, Leiden University

This interdisciplinary conference brought together (post-)colonial, legal and art historians, curators, lawyers, anthropologists, and others engaged with issues of restitution and/or repatriation to establish research collaborations by investigating stories of colonial looting, framing of colonial history in museums, origins of European legal frameworks on laws of war and restitution, and a way forward for restitution claims. Throughout the event, an array of topics was presented and discussed that crossed borders, continents, and legal and cultural battles. It started with a welcome to speakers and audience by the organisers. Inge van Hulle and Diana Natermann expressed their delight of the conference taking place despite or in spite of a global pandemic and that the speakers offered an international and diverse collection of contributions in terms of professional, national, and topical backgrounds.

The first keynote by JÜRGEN ZIMMERER (Hamburg) dealt with current restitution debates within Germany in relation to former central-African colonial territories. Zimmerer touched upon historical and current trends in national and global restitution debates as well as on the importance of including so-called cultural heritage objects to the debates but also human remains or natural objects like dinosaur fossils.

Panel 1 engaged with diplomacy, identity, and restitution. LUCAS LIXINSKI (Sydney) explored tensions between regionalism and universalism and argued for the need to analyse regional solutions more closely for promoting post-colonial heritage for the benefit of communities, rather than states of origin. SAHRA RAUSCH (Gießen) engaged with colonial amnesia. She informed about Maurice Halbwachs´ concept of collective memory and how provenance research, (de-)memorisation, and human remains are joined in the 21st century, especially colonial amnesia regarding repatriation politics where colonial pasts are negotiated. Finally, LARS MÜLLER (Hannover) introduced the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property that provided a framework for the negotiation of restitution. The Sri Lankan case allowed for a comparison between the UK, Germany, and Switzerland, how they dealt with demands and how ministries and museums negotiated a position that could be presented in bilateral talks.

The second panel dealt with multi-disciplinary perspectives on colonial violence and restitution. ROTEM GILADI (Edinburgh) offered a critical reading of contemporary categories through the prism of a long view of human corpora and cultural practice. He explored how contemporary categorisations still work to efface the cultural significance and identity markers of human/mortal remains while simultaneously re-inscribing them with cultural significance that attests to cultural differences. JAN HÜSGEN (Magdeburg) spoke about the plundering of an enemy´s armour and prestigious war booty. His paper focussed on the provenance and presentation of captured suits of armour in German, French, and British military museums, thereby recontextualising museum objects and how they established racial stereotypes. IVAN OBADIC (Zagreb), ROBERT MRLIJC (Brussels) and MIRAN MARELJA (Zagreb) looked into contributions and motives of important actors at the Congress of Vienna in relation to the restitution question, the framing of the restitution principles in the Second Treaty of Paris, and how it created categories of states.

Panel 3 about law and restitution in the past and present began with AFOLASADE A. ADEWUMI (Ibadan) who argued that the sluggishness of restitution processes lies in the operation of two diametrically opposed conceptions of cultural property: nationalist and internationalist schools of thought. ARIANNA VISCONTI (Milan) engaged with Italy´s approach to restitution and explained why Italy is a front-runner in tackling cultural heritage debates legally and its self-portrayal as a victim state. Despite fighting for its own restitutions, Italy is selectively blind towards its own colonial heritage and colonial objects. MARIE-SOPHIE de CLIPPELE (Bruxelles/Leuven) and BERT DEMARSIN (Leuven) presented Belgium´s current position on repatriating colonial artefacts stolen or illegally exported and Belgian’s contemporary context of (legal) pitfalls and societal challenges that hinder repatriating Congolese colonial heritage. They presented their draft bill for streamlining repatriation from Belgian public collections and choices made during the drafting process.

In Panel 4, heritage, discourse and the representation of cultural artefacts werde discussed., ANNALISA BOLIN (Kalmar) spoke about the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz that owns thousands of colonial human remains. She analysed repatriation pathways to be taken in the German-Rwandan case by presenting Germany´s economic strength and Rwanda´s including human remains to its engagement with its own colonial past. KOKOU AZAMEDE (Lomé) explained how German colonisers came to possess cultural property and human remains of the German Togo people. A connection between Finland and Native-America was made by JANNE LAHTI (Helsinki). He argued that Finnish and Nordic colonial legacies need to be connected to transnational framings and broader debates concerning the restitution of colonial loot in Europe and beyond (today´s largest Anasazi collection outside of North America lies in the Finnish National Museum). DONNA YATES (Maastricht) and BRIEANAH GOUVEIA (Honolulu) portrayed how non-European cultural heritage was removed and subject to racist terminology to increase sales. Provenance narratives exoticised Oceanic cultural material to appeal to white buyers. They offered examples regarding Oceanic items sold by Christie's and Sotheby's since the 1970s.

The second keynote by MATTHIAS GOLDMANN (Frankfurt am Main) enlightened us on legal ambiguities and postcolonial approaches to restitution and repatriations claims. Whilst many legal critics share the conventional view that imperial law is a monolithic and impervious for the defence of imperial interests, he challenged this on the basis of postcolonial theory. Goldmann called for recognising said ambiguity of imperial law and investigating gaps and contradictions in legal arguments establishing titles to imperial artefacts in Western states, or the rejection of restitution claims.

In the first panel of the next day, concerning enduring coloniality and cultural heritage, IAIN SANDFORD and ADA SIQUIERA (both Sidley Austin LLP, Geneva) elaborated upon the sacred Juukan caves which were destroyed in 2020 to facilitate mining, with authorisation granted under Aboriginal Heritage Act of 1972. The paper explored international legal risks for companies, possibilities of international claims regarding the destruction of cultural heritage, and international legal risks for states failing to prevent the destruction of cultural sites. NORMAN ASELMEYER (Bremen) presented a Kenyan case study that dealt with lions that killed people during a British railway construction connecting Uganda with the Indian Ocean. After killing the Tsavo lions, engineer John Patterson kept the trophy rugs for decades before selling them to the Chicago Field Museum. Kenya is requiring their repatriation since the 1990s. The paper showed that cultural value is based on both original meaning and afterlives.

International legal history and restitution debates were the topic of panel 2. TOMÁS IRISH (Swansea) highlighting how post-WWI international society handled cultural claims from the winners and losers. Irish examined the processes via which these treaties were negotiated by focusing on lobbyists like museum directors, writers, and politicians. Case studies were the treaties of Saint-German-en-Laye and Sèvres. SEBASTIAN WILLERT (Berlin) presented Ottoman protectionist measures against Western access to antique sites and the exodus of cultural assets to foreign Museums. The paradox lay within the close German-Ottoman archaeological relations and the prohibition of exporting goods from the Ottoman Empire to Germany. FLORIAN WAGNER (Erfurt) analysed notions of property developed by colonial administrators, anthropologists, and lawyers since the 1880s. He showed how lawyers and anthropologists designed laws along the needs of colonial administrations and developed legal schemes of dispossession that allowed taking property away from colonised peoples.

Panel 3 was about restitution, heritage, and human rights. EVELIEN CAMPFENS (Leiden) examined cultural objects that enjoy a protected status due to their “heritage” value. She suggested that, irrespective of provenance, original owners or creators shall rely on a “heritage title” if there is a continuing cultural link and proposed a human-rights-law approach to structure the normative framework for claims. JIHANE CHEDOUKI (Paris) highlighted the notion of cultural heritage in the colonised Arab world and argued that the application of private and public ownership regimes to cultural heritage as a means of “protection” by the colonial administration encouraged expropriations of ancient objects to be placed outside of their places of origin. GRETCHEN ALLEN (Maynooth) showed how despite calls for repatriation by Northern-Irish natives, the “Irish giant” Charles Byrne has been on public display in the Royal College of Surgeons Museum, London, for centuries. She examined how the native Northern Irish population can claim kinship with Byrne like aboriginal populations have claimed their ancestral dead from the same collection. CAROLINE DRIEËNHUIZEN (Heerlen) and FENNEKE SYSLING (Leiden) sketched the history of Indonesian restitution claims for “Java Man”, the fossilised remains of a Homo erectus excavated in Dutch-Indonesia. They problematised the presence of colonial objects in Dutch natural history museums and argued how museums depoliticise objects by insisting on a difference between cultural and natural objects.

Conference overview:


Jürgen Zimmerer (Hamburg University): Looting, Restitution, Reconciliation

Panel 1: Diplomacy, Identity, and Restitution

Lucas Lixinski (University of New South Wales, Sydney): Beyond UNESCO: Regional International Legal Approaches to Post-Colonial Restitution

Sahra Rausch (Justus Liebig University Gießen): An Affective De-Memorization? Debates over Colonial Amnesia regarding the Repatriation of Human Remains from Colonial Contexts in France and Germany

Lars Müller (Landesmuseum Hannover): Delaying, Evading, Rejecting. Western Reactions to Sri Lankan Demands for Restitution around 1980

Panel 2: Multi-disciplinary Perspectives on Colonial Violence and Restitution

Rotem Giladi (University of Edinburgh): Reading Between Categories: Corpora, Culture, Property and the Laws of War

Jan Hüsgen (German Lost Art Foundation, Magdeburg): The Enemy on Display. Suits of Armour in Military Museums

Ivan Obadić, (University of Zagreb), Robert Mrljic (European Commission, Brussels) and Miran Marelja (University of Zagreb): War, Spoils and Return of Cultural Property: Framing of Restitution Law at the Congress of Vienna in 1815

Panel 2: Law and Restitution: Past & Present

Afolasade A. Adewumi (University of Ibadan): Does Utilitarianism Merge the Dichotomy Between the Nationalist and Internationalist Conception of Cultural Property in the Quest for Restitution?

Arianna Visconti (Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan): A Paradox in Law: Italy’s Ambivalent Approach to Restitution Claims

Marie-Sophie de Clippele, (Saint-Louis – Bruxelles / Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) and Bert Demarsin (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven): Rights, Wrongs and Remedies - Working towards Colonial Heritage Repatriation Legislation for Belgium

Panel 3: Heritage, Discourse and the Representation of Cultural Artefacts

Annalisa Bolin (Linnaeus University, Kalmar): Power and Possibility: The Return of Rwanda’s Stolen Bones

Kokou Azamede (University of Lomé): Acquisition Methods of Colonial Objects and the Traditional Perception of the Museum in German Togo

Janne Lahti (Helsinki University): Mesa Verde and Finland: Stolen Artefacts, Contested Discourses, and Nordic Colonial Legacies

Donna Yates (Maastricht University) and Brieanah Gouveia (Hawaii State Judiciary’s King Kamehameha V Judiciary History Center, Honolulu): Provenance Narratives of Colonial Exploitation as Value Enhancers on the Oceanic Art Market


Matthias Goldmann (Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main): Imperial Law’s Ambiguity: A Postcolonial Approach to Restitution and Reparation Claims

Panel 1a: Enduring Coloniality and Cultural Heritage

Iain Sandford, Ada Siqueira (both Sidley Austin LLP, Geneva): The Destruction of the Juukan Gorge Caves: A Study on the Role of International Law in Protecting Cultural Heritage in Times of Peace

Norman Aselmeyer (University of Bremen): Intangible Heritage: The Man-Eaters of Tsavo and their Global (After)Lives

Panel 2a: International Legal History and Restitution Debates

Tomás Irish (Swansea University): “The Danger of Arbitrary Decisions”: The Paris Peace Conference and Cultural Reparations after the First World War

Sebastian Willert (Technische Universität Berlin): A German Excavation for the Ottoman Imperial Museum? The Scramble for Objects between Berlin and Istanbul at Tell Halaf, 1911–1914

Florian Wagner (Erfurt University): Colonialist Notions of Property: How European Lawyers Legitimized Dispossession (1880s-1950s)

Panel 3a: Restitution, Heritage, and Human Rights

Evelien Campfens (Leiden University): Whose Cultural Objects? Introducing “Heritage Title” in a Human Rights Law Approach

Jihane Chedouki (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris): From a Moral Function to a Utilitarian Function: The Transformation of Ancient Objects and Monuments in the Arab World in the 19th-20th Centuries

Gretchen Allen (Maynooth University Special Collections), A Way for the Giant’s Cause: An Examination of Irish Indigenous Rights in the Case of Charles Byrne

Caroline Drieënhuizen (Open University of the Netherlands, Heerlen) and Fenneke Sysling (Leiden University): Java Man: Restitution Claims at the Natural History Museum

Panel Chairs: Raphael Schäfer (Max-Planck-Institute, Heidelberg), Walter Nkwi Gam, (Leiden University), Alexandra Ortolja-Baird (King´s College London), Anne-Isabelle Richard (Leiden University)